Review: Damned Nation

W. Scott Poole

W. Scott Poole is Professor of History at College of Charleston.

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W. Scott Poole, "Review: Damned Nation," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): wp.jsreligion.org/vol18/poole.

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Kathryn Gin Lum. Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xviii + 310 pp. ISBN 0199843112.

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The gaps in a historiography can shock you. This one represents more than a gap. Let’s call it a yawning hellmouth.

Kathryn Gin Lum’s Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction finally examines an idea that has remained bizarrely unanalyzed in the history of American religion. I wrote a book on Satan in the American experience because, unlike in European history and religious studies, no one had bothered to write it. Do the sulfur, flames, and pitchforks seem too campy for Americanists?

Lum’s book should convince scholars and their students of the desperate importance of such matters. She shows that hell proved a fungible part of the American religious experience from the early Republic through the Civil War. More than simply a religious concept, hell related to American notions of civic order. Lum also complicates our understanding of Americans’ beliefs about hell. Significantly, she overturns any expectation that the notion of hell once held most Americans captive to its terrors until modernity swept it away. Quite the contrary, as it turns out.

Damned Nation (and let’s just admire the title for a moment, shall we?) offers a model of intellectual as well as religious history. Lum handles a rather complicated set of theological ideas with rare finesse, incarnating them in a set of significant religious figures whose colorful experiences take our understanding further than the voluminous accounts of Jonathan Edwards or Charles G. Finney. I have taught the book in a “Historian’s Craft” course, precisely because it so beautifully models intellectual and cultural history. Students still remember the struggle between “Salvation” Murray and “Damnation” Murray.

This intellectual spadework yields some fascinating results. Lum reveals, contrary to expectation, that Universalism represented as live an option as Calvinism in the early Republic. The evangelical ethos of the Second Great Awakening may have split the difference in some respects with its raw assertion of free will, but Lum makes even this idea wonderfully messy in several ways.

First, the breadth of her book covers a number of different religious experiences. She thinks through the experiences of Native Americans confronting white missionaries, enslaved African people who wondered about both the slaveholders’ hell and heaven, and women who may have begun their religious experience under the tutelage of harsh conceptions of the afterlife but often rejected or softened such notions by focusing their faith on struggles for social justice.

Second, and essential in considering topics like this, Lum makes the crucial point that, “The celebrated antebellum religious marketplace was not an equal playing field” (89). She admits that many of these spiritual journeys come from the pens of obviously literate, middle-class people with time on their hands to worry over their eternal salvation. Though the book sometimes needs to highlight the inflection of class more pointedly, Lum never lets us forget the world of day laborers, enslaved people, and, increasingly, factory workers who simply did not have time to engage in the deep religious anxiety that the religious middle class or master class sometimes demanded of them.

Lum also definitively challenges our expectations about the nineteenth-century American hell. She has found plenty of evidence for dissenting views and various types of universalism(s) that came from many different directions, including spiritualists, Herman Melville, and the emerging discipline of the alienists. In one of the strongest parts of the book, Lum discusses the mind doctors’ concerns, as early as the 1830s, about the effects of religious anxiety on mental health. Lum’s brief but very detailed discussion challenges many of our assumptions about the period’s conversation on hell and mental illness. She nuances earlier work on the exchange between “proto-psychiatry” and religion by refusing a whiggish reading of the relationship. A close reading of the sources suggests that the profession sought to create, in her words, “a gentler strain of American religiosity” (123). Rather than launching a war on religion or even raising any doubts about it, the mind doctors asserted that a “pure Christianity” eschewed the terrors of hell, arguably making the way for mainline Christianity to deal with, or simply ignore, the doctrine in the twentieth century.

Interestingly, my favorite part of this outstanding book also made me the most argumentative. Lum’s epilogue expertly historicizes the concepts she has employed throughout the book, while also trying to answer the question, as she puts it, of “what difference did hell make” (232)? She makes a strong case that the idea of hell remained a constant spur to civic virtue, no small thing in a republic attempting to hold itself together without an alliance of crown and church. She looks ahead and, to her credit, takes seriously the evidence that Americans continue to care about hell in the twenty-first century, though they generally believe it's a place reserved for someone other than themselves or their loved ones. However, did the notion of republican virtue ever provide anything other than ideological chatter? Hell fit, and in the twentieth century continued to fit, the needs of an increasingly imperialistic power that adopted an aggressive foreign policy toward its continent’s own peoples. Lum admits that hell, as part of abolitionist rhetoric, jostled with the consistent need to damn a variety of enemies, outsiders, and, now and again, much of the rest of the world.

The beginning of a fresh historiography in American religion, Damned Nation has started an infernally delightful conversation. As noted, I have had great success using the book with students, especially in helping them to understand the methodologies of cultural history and how these tools can excavate even the seemingly opaque inner worlds of belief and terror. All of us who work the dark side of the street in American history owe Lum thanks for her work.

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